Traditional food packaging is killing the planet and making us sick
Let’s talk about garbage.
Globally, humans throw away more food than any other single type of waste. Roughly 60% of all waste on Earth is shoved into landfills or strewn across open-air dumps, resulting in vast inland seas of soupy, rotting organic matter. A reasonable person might think that, while a bit gross, this is actually good! It’s better to put food scraps in landfills rather than glass and plastic, right? Organic matter will just decompose, while artificial materials will sit there, unchanging, for millennia.
Well, yes and no. While it’s true that biologically inactive materials like glass and plastic will stay buried in landfills forever without decomposing, those materials are more or less removed from the environmental equation as soon as they arrive at their final destination. We can never recoup the energy spent and the emissions generated in the creation of glass and plastic, and it’s a shame that they weren’t recycled, but at the end of the day they do not do the planet much harm by sitting inertly underground.
Food waste is an entirely different story. Simply put, throwing food in the garbage is *awful* for the environment. The degradation of organic matter in landfills results in the production of methane and carbon dioxide, two greenhouse gases that contribute mightily to climate change. Methane is particularly nasty, as it is more than 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. The buildup of these gases underground causes landfills to become structurally unstable and very smelly, which is a horrible time for everyone involved.
Throwing food in the garbage is awful for the environment.
These grotesque, greenhouse-inducing gas cocktails escape from the Earth in large belches, lingering in our skies for years or centuries to come. While gas-capturing technologies can prevent this, only a small minority of the world’s landfills are currently using them. As if this isn’t bad enough, the decomposition of organic matter in landfills also produces an incredibly caustic and toxic substance called leachate. Precautions are usually put in place to contain leachate, but as time goes by it tends to seep into local water tables and kill flora and fauna.
It must be said that a certain amount of this is inevitable. We will never be able to precisely match food production to food consumption, and sometimes food spoils before people can consume it and simply must be disposed of. However, as with most other environmental problems, the issue isn’t that something bad is happening, but that it is happening at an enormous, unsustainable scale: it is estimated that roughly 1/3 of all food produced each year, or 2.6 trillion pounds, is lost or wasted.
This status quo causes clear and needless harm to the planet. Unnecessary deforestation takes place in order to create unnecessary farmland; livestock is unnecessarily bred, raised, and slaughtered; unnecessary gasoline is burned to transport food to grocery stores; and unnecessary electricity is generated to chill food that will ultimately be disposed of without a second thought. Waste is particularly severe in the produce sector, with nearly half of all fruits and vegetables going uneaten. Up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from food that is produced but not consumed, meaning that food waste alone is responsible for more greenhouse gases than any country on Earth aside from the United States and China. All of this comes at a steep economic cost as well, usually estimated at $1 trillion per year. Needless to say, all this wasted food is more than enough to feed the 800 million or so people who go hungry each year.
8 billion people producing enough food for 11 billion people causes clear and needless harm to the planet
As with most large, systemic problems, there is not a single silver bullet that will fix global food waste. There’s a lot that can be done at the government level, including building industrial composting infrastructure, penalizing companies that waste food, and increasing the use of gas-capturing technologies in landfills. However, a large share of the blame falls on the manner in which most modern food products are packaged. In an age when everyone has a supercomputer sitting in their pocket and uses multiple satellites in space to guide them to the nearest coffee shop, the billions of tons of food that we consume each year continue to exist firmly outside of the digital world.
While there’s recently been a lot of interest in using tools like IoT tags and digital ledgers to help with food traceability and prevent counterfeiting, this does little to address the problem of waste. All across the world, from Belgium to Belize to Bangladesh, consumers are still stuck with inert, non-digital packaging that tells them nothing about the quality of the food inside. Instead, they must continue to reference arbitrary ‘expiration’ or ‘best by’ dates that are printed onto food products at the batch or lot level, or simply use their eyes and nose to make a judgement call.
Tags that sense temperature changes and oxygen levels can be printed onto food packaging today
This archaic, 20th-century state of affairs provides people with insufficient information and ultimately pushes consumers to throw perfectly good food into the garbage out of an abundance of caution. Or worse still, people will unknowingly eat food that seems fine but actually contains harmful pathogens such as e. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Each year, 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die from food poisoning caused by these and other pathogens. This type of food spoilage is usually caused by broken package seals or temperature fluctuations that causes food quality to degrade and harmful bacteria to grow. Intelligent packaging that provides information about food quality wouldn’t completely stop food waste and food poisoning, but it would be an enormous step in the right direction.
Fortunately, the technology to do this already exists. Inexpensive, non-mechanical, and digitally-integrated tags that sense temperature changes and oxygen levels can be printed onto food packaging today. Like QR codes, these tags can be easily read by smartphone cameras, giving consumers real-time information on the freshness and safety of individual food items. Access to this type of unit-level quality data would reduce foodborne illnesses and enable a much more efficient usage of food, which would have positive ramifications for the shared environment that we all live in. It is imperative that governments and corporations work to bring food packaging into the digital age. When they do, product quality sensing should be a big part of the conversation.